Despite high praise, ‘Leave No Trace’ has its weaknesses
“Leave No Trace” earned 100% at RottenTomatoes — which means there wasn’t a single national critic who disliked it.
I’m not about to ruin that record with a largely negative review; but for much of this film, I simply wasn’t buying.
It’s certainly well-made: excellent acting, impeccable photography, realistic dialog, evocative music and an engaging story about a father and daughter living off the grid in an Oregon rainforest.
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie play the pair, who get picked up for illegal camping on public land and relocated to a conventional home. But even as the daughter (aptly named Tom) settles nicely into this new life, Dad grows restless — fearing, among other things, that social agencies will separate him from his child. We can tell it won’t be long before he rebels.
Will is a military veteran who seems to be processing trauma through self-imposed isolation. We get only the vaguest hints about his backstory, and this is a weakness. It’s frustrating to watch Will’s mindset hurting Tom — because she wants and needs more than he’s willing to give her — when we cannot understand what drives his actions. This is especially true at the end, which I found tough to swallow.
Same goes for much of the earlier material: The film aims at strict verisimilitude; but time and again, Will and Tom are lucky beyond belief — particularly in the second half, where credibility stretches way past the breaking point.
Much of this involves extraordinary kindness bestowed by strangers; but for me, the film’s final vision of community felt like a liberal’s pipe-dream. I kept wondering where the money was coming from — and, if this is really the solution to Tom’s dilemma, how the rest of us could possibly expect to find this sort of idealized safety net.
Fortunately, believability is greatly aided by solid work from Foster, a veteran of many lesser-known gems (“Hostiles,” “Pandorum,” “Hell or High Water,” “Finest Hours,” even “Freaks and Geeks”). And McKenzie deserves the unilateral praise she’s received for her seemingly effortless portrayal of teenage reticence, back-to-nature fortitude and filial devotion. It’s perhaps best to see this tale as Tom’s journey toward the realization that, as she tells Dad, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”
One final factor here is the film’s refusal to pass judgment: Without painting Will as either a monster or a hero, “Leave No Trace” simply wants to tell a story; this frees us to draw our own conclusions — as I did in my “pipe-dream” comments above. Others, like the critics who raved, may embrace the movie’s cheery humanistic vision. But the book that inspired it — narrated by Tom — is based on a true story, and I suspect this screenplay tidied up a much more downbeat conclusion.
That novel, after all, is entitled “My Abandonment.”